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He heard the whispered, amused comments as he walked down the hall toward the cardiac care unit of St. Mary's Hospital, and it was hard work not to grin. He'd just been interviewed on local television that morning about his habits in the operating room. The interviewer had elicited the information that Dr. Ramon Cortero liked to listen to the rock group Desperado while he performed the open-heart surgery that he was world-famous for. The nurses and technicians in the cardiac ward where he worked had teased him about it affectionately all day. They were a team, he and these hardworking people, so he didn't take offense at the teasing. In fact, some of them were fans of the Wyoming-based group Desperado, as well.
His black eyes danced in a lean and darkly handsome face as he strode along in his surgical greens, scouting for the wife of a patient in whom he'd just replaced a malfunctioning heart valve.
The woman wasn't where she was supposed to bein the surgical waiting room on the second floor. The CCU nurse had inadvertently sent her down to the main lobby waiting room, and when he'd phoned down there, she was missing. She was a middle-aged woman whose husband had survived against the odds, having been brought in with a leaky prosthetic valve complicated by pneumonia. It had taken all Ramon's skill, and a few prayers, to bring the man through it. Now he had good news for this woman, if he could find her.
The elevator doors opened nearby, and when he turned, there she was, surrounded by her teenage son, in a long black coat, several members of her husband's family, and one of the female chaplains who'd rarely left her side since the ordeal began forty-eight hours earlier. She looked her age. Her eyes were red and puffy from much crying, and there was a desperate plea in them.
Ramon smiled, answering the question she seemed afraid to ask. "He came through just fine," he said without preamble. "He has a strong heart."
"Oh, thank God," she whispered, and hugged her son. "Thank God! And thank you, Doctor." She extended a hand and shook his hand.
"De nada," Ramon said with a gentle smile. "I'm glad we could help him."
The cardiologist, a debonair African-American, grinned from his stance near the heart surgeon. It was he who had met the woman and her son at the door as they arrived in the critical care unit and explained the heart catherization procedure as well as the valve replacement surgery to them. It was he who'd offered comfort and a glimmer of hope. The woman shook hands with him and smiled broadly, adding her thanks to him, as well.
Dr. Ben Copeland only shrugged. "That's what we're here for," he said, and smiled back. "Your husband is in the intensive care unit just down this hall. There's a room next to it where you can wait until he's hooked up to the monitors, and then you can see him."
There were more thanks, more tears. A nurse came along and was dispatched to show the relieved family where they could wait until they were allowed to see the patient.
Ben joined Ramon. "Sometimes," he said, "we have miracles. I wouldn't have bet a cup of coffee on that man's chances when he was brought in."
"Neither would I," Ramon agreed grimly. "But sometimes we get very lucky indeed." He sighed and stretched. "I could sleep for a week, but I'm still on call. I guess you get to go home."
"Lucky devil." He shook his head and left the other man with a wave of his hand as he went to check on the other two surgical patients he'd managed, with God's help, to pull back from the abyss. There had been three emergency surgeries on this otherwise quiet Sunday when he was on call. He was stiff and sore and very tired. But it was a good sort of tired. He paused at a window to gaze with quiet satisfaction at the huge lighted cross on the main hospital wall. Prayers were often answered. His had been tonight.
He checked his patients, wrote out the orders, dressed and went over to O'Keefe City Hospital across the street to visit three other new patients on whom he'd performed surgery. He also had to go to Emory University Hospital in Decatur on the way home to check a patient there who was ready to be dismissed. All his rounds made, he went home. Alone.
His apartment was spacious, but not outwardly the home of a wealthy man. He preferred simplicity, a holdover from his childhood in Havana, in the barrio. He picked up a copy of Pio Baroja's Cuentos and smiled sadly. There was an inscription just inside the cover that he knew by heart. "To Ramon from Isadora, with all my love." His wife, who had died of pneumonia, of all things, only two years before. She had died while he was abroad performing complicated bypass surgery on a very important diplomat. She had died because of neglect, because her cousin had left her alone all night and the fluid in her lungs, combined with a desperately high fever, had killed her.
It was ironic, he thought, that he hadn't been home the one time he was truly needed. He'd left Isadora with her young cousin, Noreen, a registered nurse. He'd thought he could trust Noreen to take care of her. But she'd left Isadora, and when Ramon came home from overseas, it was to find her already gone, already beyond the reach of his arms. He'd blamed, still blamed, Noreen for her neglect. She'd tried desperately to explain, but he'd refused to listen. Wasn't her sin apparent to everyone, even to her aunt and uncle, who had blamed her as vehemently as he had?
He put the book down, running his fingers lovingly over the cover. Baroja, a famous Spanish novelist of the early twentieth century, had been a physician as well as an author. He was Ramon's favorite. The stories in this collection were full of Baroja's life in the barrio of Madrid before antibiotics were discovered. They were stories of pain and tragedy and loneliness, and through it all, hope. Hope was his stock-in-trade. When all else failed, there was still faith in a higher power, hope that a miracle could occur. One had occurred tonight, for that lady whose husband was in ICU. He was glad, because it was a good marriage and those people were in love, as he and Isadora had been. At the beginning, at least
He sighed and turned toward the kitchen. He opened the refrigerator.
"Ay, ay, ay," he murmured softly to himself as he surveyed the contents. "You're a world-famous cardiac surgeon, Senor Cortero, and tonight for your supper you will feast on a frozen dinner of rubber chicken and un-dercooked broccoli. How the mighty have fallen!"
The sudden ringing of the telephone brought his head, and his eyebrows, up. He was still technically on call until midnight, and he might be needed.
He lifted the receiver. "Cortero," he said at once.
There was a pause. "Ramon?"
His face hardened. He knew the voice so well that only two syllables gave away its identity over the telephone.
"Yes, Noreen," he said coldly. "What do you want?"
There was a hesitation, also familiar. "My aunt wants to know if you're coming to my uncle's birthday party." How stilted those words. She and her aunt and uncle weren't close. They never had been, but the distance was especially noticeable since Isadora's death.
"When is it?"
"You know when."
He sighed angrily. "If I'm not on call next Sunday, I'll come." He toyed with a slip of paper on the spotless glass-topped telephone table. "Are you going to be there?" he added darkly.
"No," she said without any trace of feeling in her voice. "I took his present over today. They'll be out of town until the weekend, so they asked me to call you."
There was another pause. "I'll tell my aunt that you're coming." She hung up.
He put the receiver down and pressed it there. It felt cold under his fingers, cold like the inside of his heart where Isadora was. He could never separate the memory of her death from Noreen, who could have saved her if she'd been at home. It was unreasonable, this anger. He realized that, on some level. But he'd harbored his grudge, fed it on hate, fanned the flames to thwart the pain of losing Isadora in such a way. He made himself forget that Noreen had loved Isadora, that her grief had been every bit as genuine as his own. He hated her and couldn't hide it. Hating Noreen was his solace, his comfort, his security.
To give her credit, she never accused him of being unjust or unreasonable. She simply kept out of his way. She worked in O'Keefe City Hospital across the street from St. Mary's, where he performed most of his surgeries. She was one of two registered nurses who alternated night duty on a critical care ward. Sometimes he had patients in her unit, whom he had to visit on rounds. But he treated her even there as a nuisance. She had a university degree in nursing science. She had the talent and intelligence to become a doctor, but for some reason, she'd never pursued such a career. She'd never married, either. She was twenty-five now, mature and levelheaded, but there were no men in Noreen's life. Just as there were no women in Ramon's.
He went back into the kitchen and made himself a pot of coffee. He required very little sleep, and his work was his life. He wondered what he would have done without it since losing Isadora.
He smiled, remembering with sad poignancy her elegant blond beauty, those vivid blue eyes that could smile so warmly. Noreen was a poor carbon copy of her, with dishwater blond hair and gray eyes and no real looks to speak of. Isadora had been beautiful, a debutante with exquisite poise and manners. The family was very wealthy. Noreen shouldn't have to work at all, because she was the only surviving heir to the Kensington fortune. But she had apparently little use for money, because even when she was off duty, she seemed to dress down. She had an apartment and never asked her aunt and uncle for a penny to help support her. He wondered what their response would have been if she had asked, and was amazed that he concerned himself with her at all.
Noreen had been a puzzle since he'd met Isadora, six years before. Isadora was outgoing and gregarious, always flirting and fun to be with. Noreen had been very quiet, rarely exerting herself. She'd had no social life to speak of. She was studious and reserved back then, a nurse in training, and her profession seemed to be paramount in her life.
Ramon frowned. Odd, he thought, how a woman so wrapped up in nursing could have been so negligent with her own cousin. Noreen was so conscientious on the ward that she was often reprimanded for questioning medicine orders that seemed unacceptable to her.
Perhaps she'd been jealous of Isadora. Still, why would she have gone so far as to leave a critically ill woman alone in an apartment for almost two nights?
One of his colleagues had mentioned Noreen to him shortly after the funeral, and remarked how tragic the whole business was, especially Noreen's condition. He'd snapped that Noreen was no concern of his and walked off. Now he wondered what the man had meant. It was a long time ago, of course. The colleague had long since moved to New York City.
He dismissed the thought from his mind. God knew, he had more important things to think about than Noreen.